It was the horrible sense of deja vu that was hardest to bear. For Wembley 2011 the Manchester United script read painfully like Rome 2009; its distressing denouement a team in blue-and-red playing party games with the trophy Sir Alex Ferguson covets beyond all others.
Ferguson had talked of the tactical maturity of his team in the build up, praised their near peerless record over the last four Champions League seasons, and emphasised the importance of preparation. There seemed a quite confidence about him. A sense that this time it would be different.
Yet the similarities were to jump out. Think back to Rome when injury and suspension deprived Barcelona’s defence of Eric Abidal, Dani Alves and Rafael Marquez. Ferguson attempted to blitzkrieg his way to a lead and initially rocked Barca backward.
Here, Barcelona decided not to risk starting half-fit captain Carles Puyol in combination with an Abidal still recovering from cancer surgery. Instead Javier Mascherano reprised his recent role in central defence and found himself targeted as a weakness to be exploited.
Again United charged headlong at Barca. High, direct balls were fired at Mascherano, who was buffeted by Wayne Rooney playing further up the pitch; his European norm. For 10 minutes United were dominant, yet, as in Rome, it was not to last.
With four seasons experience as a United reserve, Gerard Pique identified the strategy and sheltered Mascherano by claiming the high balls. In front of him, Barca’s midfield passers started hitting marks and generating confidence. By the end of the first half 67 per cent of possession was theirs; belief clearly with them.
In one sense United improved upon their performance in the 2009 final. There, a Samuel Eto’s goal on 10 minutes put Barca in front and Ferguson’s men withered. At Wembley, errant finishing plus the well-timed tackles or Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand delayed the opener until the 27th-minute.
Even when Pedro had found the net – played in by the decoy run of Lionel Messi and the studied patience of Xavi’s passing – United found a response. Wayne Rooney levelled and Ferguson had an opportunity to readjust.
It was not taken. The Scot’s half time team-talk was brief enough for United to retake the turf some five minutes before their opponents.
Rooney was withdrawn into a slightly deeper role to back up his overrun central midfielders, but essentially Plan B closely resembled Plan A.
United’s defence continued to play a deep defensive line, the midfield remained spread across the pitch, and the gaps remained generous enough for Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Messi to work their treacherous triangles. Messi ran unchallenged to whip a 25-yard strike past a partially unsighted Edwin van der Sar; David Villa stretched the lead to two following a misdirected clearance and all that was left was Ferguson’s explanation of “the hiding they gave us”.
“I think it’s obvious, I said we are against a good team before the game,” said Ferguson. “I think our training sessions were very good in the build-up to the game and were set up to be as near as possible to way they play. They do mesmerise you with their passing and we never really got near Messi. When we got the lifeline from Wayne Rooney expected it to be better in the second half it wasn’t to be.”
Ferguson rejected the idea that the directness of his initial tactics had been motivated by Puyol’s absence, blaming instead a failure to control the centre of the park. “We had a question mark on Puyol playing because he’d only played three games since Jan. I don’t think it had any bearing at all on how we approached the game.
“We never really closed the midfield well enough. I think we tried to play as near to the way we normally play. I think it’s alien for us to man mark players, it wasn’t good enough on the night. We understand it and we can move on from there.”
Could it have been different? The irony of the conclusion to United’s third Champions League final in four years was that the team had arrived here on the strength of its defending, conceding just four times in the 12 games that brought them to Wembley. There was also a ready-made answer to Barca’s carousel passing to hand from a close friend of Ferguson’s.
Jose Mourinho had not made this final, but in four recent encounters with Guardiola he had drawn twice, one the Copa del Rey and only lost when deprived of a strategically critical player by a questionable red card. Mourinho’s tactics with Real Madrid, moreover, were a variant on the methods that saw Internazionale convincingly evict Barca from the Champions League in last year’s semi-finals.
Set out midfield and defence operating in a tight, concentrated box. Train your back four to be attentive to the in-and-out-of-offside movement of Messi, Pedro and David Villa. Instruct your team to wait for Barca’s passing errors, claim possession, and remain calm under intense pressing.
Then play a quick lateral pass away from the encircling Catalans so the pitch opens up for a forward ball, because turned on their heels Barcelona’s defenders are relatively weak. The correct combination of clever organisation, patient concentration, and focused aggression had undone Barca before. They surely had better odds of succeeding than a rerun of Rome?